Monday, March 02, 2009

Eight Words You Can Never Say On Television

Eight Words You Can Never Say On Television

Flipping the channels this past weekend and AMC was showing Blazing Saddles. I stopped flipping: it was a guaranteed laugh and I was curious to see just how they'd handle the language on a basic cable channel.

Sure enough, a six letter word beginning with N was blanked out. So there are officially eight words you can never say on television.

AMC did, however, let two moments when Mel Brooks censors himself slide. Once he censors himself with a churchbell:

In the other, the word is cut short by Brooks himself:
Le Petomane: I gotta talk to you. Come here.
[grabs Bart and pulls him aside]
Le Petomane: Have you gone berserk? Can't you see that man is a ni...
[turns and sees Bart]
Le Petomane: Ha ha... wrong person. Forgive me. No offense intended.
[walks Bart back, then pulls Hedley aside]
Le Petomane: Have you gone berserk? Can't you see that man is a ni?

In both these jokes, the already (in 1974) questionable nature of the now-forbidden word is central to the humor. The other, full uses are all by unsympathetic (but still funny) characters and mocks their own prejudice and ignorance; you never hear Cleavon Little go all gangsta and use it self-referentially. (That would have started roughly late `80s; "Straight Outta Compton" by NWA was not the first but it was the milestone.)

There's sooooo much politically incorrect about this movie: several rape jokes, Klansmen and Hitler as sight gags, and plenty of racial stereotypes in all directions (one word: schnitzelgruben). All intact, but the N word is, as Lily von Schtupp would say, verboten.

The standards on what offends change with time. Back in 1974, in the same era, Archie Bunker was dropping N-bombs, in keeping with the real way his character would have talked, in prime time. But the first time Blazing Saddles was shown on network TV, the groundbreaking windbreaking scene was shown... with all the flatulent sound effects (and thus the whole joke) cut out. (One could argue that the farting cowboy scene, for better or worse, was one of the most influential in modern cinema. The gross-out pioneer.)

I saw Martin Scorsese introduce a broadcast of "The Good, The Bad, and The Ugly" once by saying films reflect the era in which they were made. (Which was when I realized it was not a movie about the Civil War. It was about Vietnam.) And Blazing Saddles is not about 1874. It's about 1974, and in some ways is almost a quaint period piece in the Obama era.

Yet it's still relevant. Attorney General Eric Holder got right-wing flak for saying Americans have been "cowards" in dealing with race. The honest racial dialogue he envisions probably doesn't sound anything like Blazing Saddles. But one of the dangers of PCness is that we take away our tools of communication, especially laughter and vocabulary. Blazing Saddles isn't a message movie, but between the yuks you get a message anyway from Mel Brooks. "Prejudice is stupid. Laughably stupid."

No comments: